What Are You Reading?

In anticipation of National Reading Month, we’re posting a series of emails that have recently flown between CIS staff. We did this last year and once again, it’s been fun to see what my colleagues are reading. We’ll begin with Artrella’s email that started it all…

A month from now (give or take a few days) Kalamazoo Public Schools will be kicking off its Literacy Month activities at the various schools (National Reading Month is March). I personally think that it is always fun to see the READ posters out at the sites and various KPS buildings when I am out. My curiosity leads me to ask the question…WHAT ARE YOU READING???  

I just received my book via Amazon today, which is a part of my Book Club (The Lovely Ladies of Literature). It is 32 Candles by Ernessa T. Carter. Do share…

-Artrella M. Cohn, Director of Secondary Sites


I’m reading Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital by Sheri Fink. “In the tradition of the best investigative journalism, physician and reporter Sheri Fink reconstructs five days at the Memorial Medical Center and draws the reader into the lives of those who struggled mightily to survive and to maintain life amid chaos.” Challenging subject material, but excellent writing.

-Deb Faling, Director of Social Emotional Health Initiatives


I just got a box delivered from a friend living in India, and she sent me: Ayoni and Other Stories, a compilation of stories written by various Indian writers “who have focused on women’s issues…and altered the Telugu [Indian ethnic group] literary scene…. These stories deal with the dilemmas and problems faced by women, both on the physical and emotional levels.”

So far, I like how one of the writers captures one of my personal gestures, a blank stare, via writing by the usage of “…”. Tis awesome!!

-Haley A-bel, CIS Site Coordinator, Milwood Magnet Middle School


I’m reading Tenth of December, a collection of short stories by George Saunders and have recently finished A Woman in the Polar Night, by Christiane Ritter, the story of a year spent by a woman in a tiny hut on an island in the arctic circle which makes our recent Polar Vortex look like a walk in the park.

-Donna Carroll, Director of Health Initiatives


The Wisdom of Insecurity by Alan Watts. A classic introduction to Taoism I have read a few times and it’s always soothing for me.

-Emily Demorest, CIS Site Coordinator, Maple Street Magnet


I am reading Affirming Your Greatness Through The Power of Words by Burnette Clingman and Strengths Finder 2.0 by Tom Rath.

-Deborah Yarbrough, CIS Site Coordinator, Kalamazoo Central High School


I’ve just finished gorging myself with Fried Walleye and Cherry Pie: Midwestern Writers on Food, edited by Peggy Wolff. I’m on to the next course, a combination ofTell Me, poems by one of my favorite poets Kim Addonizio and Traveling Sprinkler, a novel by Nicholson Baker, one of the most uninhibited, funny writers I’ve ever read. Take page 96, for instance. I wanted to tell the Quakers about Debussy’s sunken cathedral. I kept formulating an opening in my head. “A little more than a hundred years ago, a composer named Claude Debussy wrote a piece for piano called ‘The Sunken Cathedral.’ He was a man with a big forehead who loved the sea.

-Jennifer Clark, Director of Community Relations


I just finished Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Won’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain. Just started a novel called The Daughters of Mars by Thomas Keneally.

–Pam Kingery, Executive Director


I am reading Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women, by Melissa Harris Perry and just started the third book in the Game of Thrones series by George R.R. Martin. Yes, #nerdpoints.

-Kaitlin Martin, Volunteer Services Coordinator


I am currently reading one of this year’s “Reading Together” books: The American Way of Eating by Tracie McMillan. I also just finished reading a book called Blood and Beauty by Sarah Dunant.  It is a historical fiction on the Borgia family in Italy.

-Emily Kobza, Director of Development & Business Engagement


I am listening to Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin and just finished listening to MansfieldPark by Jane Austen. I just finished reading the first two books in the Divergent Seriesby Veronica Roth and am impatiently waiting for my daughters to finish the third.  At one point during reading the first book there were 3 book marks in it.  I love it when we all read the same book- The Newsome Girls Book Club!  It’s really great when we get my mom to join in, too!!

Next in line are Clara and Mr. Tiffany by Susan Vreeland and Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmakerby Jennifer Chiaverni, both historical fiction.

-Debra Newsome, Finance Coordinator


Wild Things by Dave Eggers!! Check him out if you haven’t; he’s fantastic.

-Jen DeWaele, CIS Site Coordinator, Woodward School for Technology and Research


America’s Women: 400 Years of Dolls, Drudges, Helpmates, and Heroines by Gail Collins. I highly recommend!

-Abby Nappier, Director of Volunteer Services


I’m reading A Dance with Dragons, the 5th book in the Fire and Ice/Game of Thrones series by George R.R. Martin. They’re amazing – you guys should just stop reading your current books and switch to these.  🙂

-Donielle Hetrick, CIS Site Coordinator, Woods Lake


Currently reading Manage Your Day-to-Day: Build Your Routine, Find Your Focus, and Sharpen Your Creative Mind by Jocelyn Glei. Great book for learning how to work smarter and find creativity even when you have no time or energy for it.

P.S. I love seeing what everyone is reading.

-Korrine Wojcik, CIS Site Coordinator, Milwood Elementary

P.P.S. We hope you also loved reading what we are reading. We’d love to hear what you are reading. Let us know! We may just publish what are readers are reading in the near future.


We Can’t Have a Strong America with Weak Kids

Hunger, by its very nature, takes bites out of academic success. When a child is hungry, it impacts that child’s ability to learn. It’s harder to pay attention to what the teacher is saying, it’s difficult to focus on reading, and to regulate behavior. A chronically hungry child is worried when and where their next meal will come from.

I had written the above words and then met Billy Shore, Founder and CEO of Share Our Strength. Actually, we didn’t really meet and Mr. Shore has no clue who I am. I was just one in the crowd when he stepped out to the podium the day after the Awards of Excellence celebration in Charlotte, North Carolina. It’s just that he was so engaging, funny, and thoughtful that I felt like we met. He said a lot of important things in his speech but what has stuck with me is this: “We can’t have a strong America with weak kids.”

In America, there are 11 million children in kindergarten through 12th grade who live in poverty. That is, as Mr. Shore pointed out, a lot of children coming to school in a state of distress, sitting at their desks “fundamentally compromised in their learning…plopping them in front of a great teacher” does not solve the problem. If anything, it is, in the eyes of Mr. Shore “setting children up to fail.”

Since 2003, here in Kalamazoo we have learned that if we can send kids home with food on Fridays, they return to school on Monday more focused and ready to learn.

Thanks to Kalamazoo Loaves & Fishes, Friday Foodpacks have been one of the “tools” CIS Site Coordinators pull out of their tool box of resources to help. Just last school year, 750 elementary students received a weekly foodpack while food pantries served students in El Sol Elementary and all six secondary schools.

As third grade Kalamazoo Public School teacher P.J. Bucholtz puts it, “No amount of love in the world can fill an empty tummy.” Only food can do that. And it is only because of the efforts of Kalamazoo Loaves & Fishes, Anne Lipsey, the entire KLF staff and their board that our Site Coordinators, with the support of many organizations and volunteers can get Friday Foodpacks into the hands–and tummies–of our hungriest of children. For students like Charles (not his real name), it can make all the difference.

Identified this year by his CIS Site Coordinator as someone who could benefit fromFriday Foodpacks, Charles was looking forward to receiving his pack. At the same time, it so happened his school, like many schools, was engaged in a food drive. So when Friday arrived and his Site Coordinator gave him his first ever foodpack, he informed her he was going to donate all of it to the food drive. After all, he knows what it feels like to be hungry. He is hungry a lot. Weekends especially.

She looked into eager eyes and in her wisdom said, “How about this time you pick one thing from your bag to donate? Just this one time, okay?”

He loved the idea. So, he parted with one item and then went home, with dignity and food still in his pack.

Upon hearing this story, CIS Executive Director Pam Kingery replied, “Loaves & Fishes is about feeding hungry people, but it is also about dignity.” How true. One of the hunger stories noted on the KLF website quotes someone as saying, “KLF volunteers always made me feel like somebody instead of nothing.” Our Site Coordinators and community volunteers are doing the same thing within the schools. Providing both access to food and embodying the KLF values: respect, diversity & inclusion, stewardship & accountability, integrity, collaboration, urgency, and service.

By working through us within the Kalamazoo Public Schools, Kalamazoo Loaves & Fishes taps into the heart of one of our values or what we refer to as a “CIS basic”:  that all children deserve a healthy start in life. And, for one little boy, who, according to the Site Coordinator is now eating every last crumb in his pack, it spoke to another CIS basic, the opportunity to give back to peers and community.

We are thankful for the ongoing commitment of members of this community who make it possible for our children to arrive to school on Monday more focused and ready to learn. Milwood Christian Reformed Church (MRC helped pilot this program back in 2003) both carry out the foodpack distribution at Milwood Elementary and financially support this program. And when MCR volunteers Helen Anderson and Thelma Vantill go on vacation they find people from the church to step in while they’re gone. Mt. Zion financially supports the foodpacks at Northglade. Workers who are part of the MRC Industries sheltered workshop pack food into bags for Edison and Spring Valley each week. Out at other KPS schools, our kids rely on CIS volunteers like Allison Leonard (Parkwood Upjohn), Rose Blackwood (Prairie Ridge), and Cortney Afton (Lincoln) to make sure the packs get to kids in time for the weekend.

CIS Site Coordinator Leslie Poucher Pratt refers to these foodpack volunteers as “All Stars.” We couldn’t agree more.

Director of Volunteer Services, Abby Nappier, says we still need a number of volunteers to help deliver foodpacks to children within several schools. So, if you or someone you know may want to volunteer, click here.

There is, Mr. Shore reminds us, much work to be done when it comes to eradicating child hunger. Until then, we will only be as strong as our weakest child.

A version of Charles’ story first ran in Kalamazoo Loaves & Fishes newsletter. You can find it here.

Being a VISTA

100_3129CIS has three AmeriCorps VISTA workers who are wrapping up their time with us this week. VISTA stands for Volunteers In Service To America. VISTAs commit to a full-time year of service and receive a stipend which is set just above the poverty level. In addition to the stipend, VISTAs are eligible to receive an educational award at the completion of their year of service. Communities In Schools currently has seven VISTAs who work to build capacity in our community. Each VISTA is assigned to work as part of a CIS site team in two schools.

We are so grateful for their service. When the government shut down, our AmeriCorps VISTAs didn’t miss a beat. They continued their commitment with us. Thank you Courtney, Peggy, and Shereen for your dedication and  service! As our Director of Volunteer Services, Abby Nappier says, “They have made such a profound impact on our schools, supporting students with services provided through the community while actively promoting a College Going Culture.” It is only fitting, then, that our guest blogger today is Peggy Korpela.

I became a VISTA with CIS because I wanted to do community building while gaining work experience. I believe helping children is one of the biggest ways we can improve our community. Children are, after all, the future.

Peggy with some of the College Club students at 5th grade graduation last year.
Peggy with some of the College Club students at 5th grade graduation last year.

A typical day as a VISTA starts off with assisting my site coordinator with student and volunteer data. On Mondays, I meet with my fifth graders who are in the College Club. Our social work intern Jaime and I teamed up for this project. We discuss various topics, such as the Kalamazoo Promise® and the schools they can go to with it. As part of my VISTA project, I created a reference notebook of Kalamazoo Promise® information. The students use this as a reference to work on developing a profile of colleges they’re interested in. They write a formal letter to the college(s), asking for more information. I also help them navigate college websites and career websites. I developed lesson plans for the club specifically so Jaime and others could continue to support these students after my VISTA service ends and I leave Spring Valley.

Bulletin board created by Peggy
Bulletin board created by Peggy

I’ve learned a lot about myself through my VISTA service. Before my term began I wasn’t especially good at problem solving in a time crunch or thinking fast on my feet.  I’m much better at it now. I felt I had a good understanding of kids before, but I know I have deepened my understanding this year.  I am also more confident in my ability to manage a project on my own. For example, I supported dental services at both KPS elementary summer school sites and it went really well. Communities In Schools partners with the Kalamazoo County Health and Community Services throughout the year to assure students receive the dental care they need. The County’s mobile Smiles to Go dental van has two dental chairs inside of what looks like a large camper van with a smiling tooth on the side. At Northeastern and Milwood Elementary Schools I assisted with the infrastructure for the program, ensuring enrollment forms were correct, communicating with parents, scheduling with school staff, and escorting students to their dental appointments. Working with the dental team, I managed to get about 92 students in for dental cleanings.  If you had asked me before VISTA started if I thought I could do that, I’m not sure I’d say yes. The VISTA experience has given me confidence in my abilities and a lot of pride in the fact that I have been able to have a direct impact on children.After lunch, my activities range from entering data in the computer to obtaining clothes for kids who need them.

Teachers often come in to ask questions about various resources for their students. On Fridays, the 5th graders who help us with food packs will come back to our office to pick a prize out of our prize box. At the end of the day, I connect with some of our CIS students to find out how their day went. After the students leave, it’s usually more data entry or other projects that require more uninterrupted time.

Committment To Hope: A Steadfast Partner Over The Years

IMG_1196Today we highlight the work of Milwood Christian Reformed Church. This faith-based partner was honored this past spring at the sixth annual Champ Celebration. (This is the eighth installment of a nine part series.)

“Giving of Ourselves and Resources in Service to Others.” That is part of the mission statement of Milwood Christian Reformed Church. For the past decade, both Communities In Schools of Kalamazoo and Kalamazoo Public Schools have seen them living that belief—in a variety of ways—with our children at Milwood Elementary School.

Most of you are probably aware of our Friday Food pack program that is made possible by our partnership with Kalamazoo Loaves & Fishes and other organizations. What you may not realize is that Milwood Christian Reformed Church was instrumental in helping us develop this program back in 2003. Along with Loaves & Fishes, they worked closely with our CIS staff at the time—taking a few “field trips” to food banks and a trip to a school in Vicksburg, to learn more about a similar program already underway. What we learned from their efforts—of helping CIS deliver Friday packs to 50 Milwood Elementary students that first year—allowed us to work the kinks out. Their members  breathed life into this pilot program for our hungriest children that now, nine years later has expanded to 650 children receiving weekly food packs across 11 schools, with an additional 1,250 children served during CIS and KPS summer programming.

IMG_1183Over the years, despite leadership changes within the school from principals to site coordinators, Milwood Christian Reformed has remained a steadfast partner. Not only have they continued to support the Friday Back pack program at Milwood Elementary—both with volunteers and financially—but they have also recruited and funnelled to our Site Coordinators solid, committed volunteers who mentor and tutor children. In 2006, they went through the work and training necessary to become part of Kids Hope USA whose motto is: One Child, One Hour, One Church, One School at a time through one-on-one mentoring relationships.

CIS Site Coordinator Abby Nappier can’t say enough of the tremendous work of Jane VanTuinen, Milwood Church’s Volunteer Director of Kids Hope USA. “She works tirelessly to recruit and retain a strong core of committed individuals. Volunteers come filled with joy,” says Abby. “They show up for the same child year after year and often keep in touch with their student as they graduate to middle school.”

We could go on but we’ll leave you with the voices of children through letters they wrote to their mentors like Miss Helen, Miss Lesley, Miss Betty, Miss Sue, Miss Jody, Mr. Bob, Ms. Rose, and Grandma June. Their words are testament to the transformative power of a loving presence in a child’s life. They underscore the words of CIS founder Bill Milliken who said, “Programs don’t change kids. People do.”

Milwood Kids Hope“I really needed you this year because I needed help with math and reading. I have learned from you how to stop fighting, and I learned how to be good in class. I have learned from you how to be a good girl, good reader and I learned how to listen…You make me feel happy inside.”

“I have learned from you about math, reading, and I learned that I can be a doctor or teacher if I want…Thank you for giving me love!”

“I can tell that you care about me because you laugh with me, you talk to me, and we play games. My favorite part of Kids Hope USA was going to the farm and going on a tractor ride.”

“I will always remember you because you are part of me.”

“I really liked it when we got together and played games, and we made crafts. One time we went outside to find signs of Spring…I know you’ll always care about me…Thank you for mentoring me all these years. I love you.”

Milwood Christian Reformed Church, we thank you for helping students stay in school and achieve in life.